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Costume Design and Construction in California Community Theatre (Part 1 of a Two-Part Series)

This month we're spreading knowledge and experiences about costume design and construction in California community theatre. Check out answers to a variety of questions:

Who is responsible for costume design at your community theatre? (position/title)

  • Director of the show, assisted by staff

  • This season for our biggest production (Beauty and the Beast) we reached out to a former colleague of mine at Santa Rosa Junior College. She was kind enough to rent us her costumes and donate her time for two trips up to fit them. We then hired her student assistant to get us through dress rehearsals. That was good for the young woman who got both a stipend and some good experience for her resume. There are not a lot of designers available in our community. We try to use the most highly skilled of those that are around, but as you can imagine they are in high demand. We have mentored designers who do not have training from time to time, but that is a drain on the organization. Next season we are lucky to have contracted all five of our shows with one fantastic designer.

  • Production Costume Designer

  • Head Costumer

  • No one

  • Costume Designer

  • Costume Designers and Artistic Director along with the show Director

Who is responsible for costume construction at your community theatre? (position/title/group/committee)

  • Group effort

  • Generally it is the designer who builds/pulls/alters costumes. We sometimes get help from community members by holding "stitch-in" days at the theatre. That is fun, good community building, and get the job done!

  • Production Costume Designer

  • Same

  • We occasionally use a friend who likes to sew and who does a good job

  • Costume Designer/Production Director

  • Costume Designers

Do you have a 'stock' of costume materials you use first when designing costumes, and before other pieces are purchased?

Do you rent out your costumes to other groups?

How do you find new costume materials?

  • Thrift stores; fabric stores; on-line

  • We purchase fabric and notions on line and at the local fabric stores. We do a LOT of shopping at thrift stores. We have quite good stock ourselves that we work pretty hard to take care of. We also have good lending/borrowing relationships with the other theatres in our area.

  • Various sources including fabric stores, thrift stores, and retail outlets

  • Donation & Purchase

  • We buy them occasionally

  • Existing wardrobe, local fabric stores, local thrift stores, online, L.A. garment district, etc.

  • We get our costumes through donations, costumers creating them from scratch with fabric (which is either donated or purchased) or through searches through thrift stores.

What resources do you utilize to find specific costume material or pieces?

  • Other theater companies costume shops; internet

  • Other local theatres, friends from college who are now running their own theatres/programs outside of the area.

  • Knowledge base mostly.

  • Shopping on line, Begging

  • We don't

"It varies greatly depending on the type/period of the production. There are many online sources for pre-built period pieces that one can augment, but lead time must be taken into account. We rarely order fabric online as the colors, textures, translucency, etc. can be difficult to discern. Most fantasy costumes are built from the ground up as they must physically function in very specific ways and are highly stylized to meet the visual ideals of the director."

  • Donations, a small budget and hard work and elbow grease.

Does your community theatre get materials donated? If so, do you accept everything that is donated?

  • No, not everything

  • Yes, we do get donations. No we do not take everything. We have more furs and military items that we know what to do with. Our storage area is too small to take in anything that is not clearly of use to us.

  • Yes and no. We accept items we think we might be able to use.

  • Yes. Yes.

  • No/ No

  • Yes, we get materials donated. No, we do not accept all materials that are donated.

  • We accept donations, however, in recent years we've had to be a bit more selective as our costume department is one of the finest in the Inland Empire and space has become limited.

Do you purchase costume materials because of price or accessibilty even if they are not currently needed for something specific?

  • Sometimes

"Only notions. Richard the Thread (online source) sales are the best."

  • Rarely

  • Not usually

  • Never!

  • Yes.

  • We purchase on a need base only.

What is the most ambitious costume design/construction your community theatre has undertaken?

  • Our production of Beauty and the Beast is BY FAR the largest we have ever done. It has taken a full year to bring the show to fruition. The costumes came from Santa Rosa Junior College (all 10 eight foot racks and 20 tote boxes of them!) and were augmented by our own stock. We had to pick them up last August in a 26 foot uhaul. We stored them in a board member's garage where we hosted two long weekends of fittings (January and March). Then we had to truck them to the theatre where the final adjustments are being made as I type this. Last night we had our first onstage rehearsal of "Be Our Guest" in costume. That was a laugh riot! These costumes were built for a theatre three times our size and by the time you get all of them on our stage...well lets just say they make an impression! To make this very large production work we will have to use our scene shop (down the alley!) as a dressing room because the cast and costumes are too big to fit all of them backstage. Hopefully audiences will be wowed, we will sell out, and the show will balance our budget for the year. Fingers crossed.

  • Most of our costumes are "today". Some that have been built are period pieces and those can be the most challenging.

  • Fiddler on the Roof with 42 cast members and mutliple costume changes

  • Probably A Christmas Carol (Dec. 2016) cast of 14 with doubling, and tripling of roles. Ms. De Bane made upwards of 30 costumes. Grueling.

  • Probably the most elaborate was the Aslan character in "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe." It was a combination puppet and costume that required two people to operate it. But we have had many elaborate and creative costumes for productions such as "Alice in Wonderland," "The Wizard of Oz," and even wrestling attire for a different take on "Samson."

"In many cases, renting is much cheaper than trying to build a costume yourself, and we have a wonderful place in Uplands (Southern California) called "The Theater Company" that we have worked with for five years. That said, we do occasionally make costumes, especially for kids' shows." - Courtney Simson, Truckee Community Theater

Spotlight on: Hi-Desert Cultural Center

One of our recent ambitious designs was for DRAGON (the love interest of Donkey) in our recent summer youth theater production of SHREK THE MUSICAL JR. The costume had to be created with articulating wings and tail -- requiring wire caging to be carefully constructed and intricately skinned with fabric and scale details. A few photos included:

Spotlight on: Ferndale Repertory Theatre

Enjoy seeing these photos from Beauty and the Beast fittings. The show opened May 5, 2017.

The Aug 15, 2016 photo is us loading the costumes into a board member's garage for storage and fittings.

Check back in a couple months for Part 2 of this series, about set design and construction in California community theatre.

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